Even as they firmed up Israeli-American strategy in their handling of a war with Iraq, this week’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush focused also on ways to best to defuse the Palestinian conflict.
The Wednesday Oval Office meeting — the seventh since Sharon took office in March 2001 — was to ensure that both were on the same page to prevent surprises in the future, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
“The Americans are taking this very seriously in the sense of coordination and contingency plans … so that the need to suddenly respond to an unexpected situation will be minimal,” he said. “And the issue of how Israel will respond to Palestinian or Hezbollah attacks” from southern Lebanon was also to be discussed.
“Israel is being asked to act with restraint, but there are red lines and if there are major attacks or Israeli casualties in an attack, Israel will have to react,” Steinberg said.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are fearful that the other is going to use an American-led war on Iraq as an opportunity to launch major attacks against them. Palestinian President Yasir Arafat was quoted by an Egyptian weekly Tuesday as saying he believed Israel planned to drive Palestinians from the territories if a war with Iraq was launched.
The Bush administration has made it clear in recent weeks that it does not want to see a flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ahead of an attack on Iraq in order to avoid upsetting neighboring Arab countries the U.S. hopes will support its Iraqi offensive.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told reporters Tuesday that the Bush administration was making a mistake if it focused exclusively on Iraq and pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the back burner.
“Dealing with the Iraqi file alone will further complicate both the Palestinian and the Iraqi issues,” he was quoted as saying. “The sound way to solve all the region’s issues is through tangible and major progress on the Palestinian cause.”
A war with Iraq does not necessarily mean that Israel will come under attack from Iraq, according to Amatzia Baram, a political science professor who is an expert on Iraq at the University of Haifa.
“My assessment is that there is a 51 percent chance that no [Iraqi] missile will actually hit the ground in Israel, in which case there will be no retaliation,” he said. “However, if two or three non-conventional weapons strike Israel, there will be an Israeli response that would be limited and surgical and designed to punish the ruling elite.”
He said he believes an American-led coalition would attack Iraq in January or February. He said his fear is that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein may try to do what Hitler did in the waning hours of his rule when he ordered that all of German industry be destroyed.
“Saddam will want to make sure that Israel does that for him,” said Baram. “When American forces are about to enter Bagdad, he will order a chemical and biological attack on Israel. We don’t know what Israel will do, but in Saddam Hussein’s eyes Israel believes in the biblical eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth. So when he bombs Israel, he believes Israel will retaliate by evaporating Baghdad. He would then rest in peace knowing that he will go down in history as a great Arab who was able to destroy much of Israel.”
At the White House meeting, Bush was expected to tell Sharon that the U.S. would do its best to destroy all Iraqi missiles within range of Israel.
Political observers noted that Bush did not want to appear to be pressuring Sharon for fear it would hurt Republican chances to regain control of both houses of Congress during next month’s elections. The Democrats control the Senate by one vote.
Israeli officials have said repeatedly in recent weeks that the country is better able to defend itself against Iraqi Scud missiles than it was in 1991, when 39 Scuds struck Israel. It now has the Arrow anti-ballistic missile that was jointly developed and financed by the United States, in addition to Patriot missiles the U.S. is deploying in Israel as a backup to the Arrow.
Perhaps in response to a Bush administration request to withdraw Israeli troops from another major Palestinian city, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said this week that he was considering a withdrawal from Hebron.
“Right now we are in the midst of talks … on widening the area [of withdrawal] from ‘Bethlehem First’ to ‘All of Judea First,’” Ben-Eliezer told Israel Army Radio. “We are in intensive talks on this issue and I hope that by the end of the week this will happen if the conditions in the field will allow it. … We are already out of Bethlehem. I assume that Hebron and Bethlehem will join the area of Jericho [in being free of troops].”
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said Ben-Eliezer is expected to propose the withdrawal plan to the cabinet next week. But he said that weighing against the desire to have a whole block of Palestinian cities free of Israeli troops is the fact that it might be an invitation to renewed terrorist activity.
“Israelis understand that if they undertake premature steps in redeploying from their current position, that could be followed by a new wave of terrorist attacks,” he said.
In a further move aimed at easing tensions, Gold said Israel was preparing to release to the Palestinian Authority about $18 million it collected in taxes from Palestinian workers. The transfer was delayed while a mechanism could be put in place by the United States to ensure that none of the money went to terrorists.
In the meantime, Arafat was expected to nominate a new cabinet by the end of the week to replace the one that resigned to avoid a no-confidence vote last month. That move was seen as good new by Javier Solana, the foreign policy representative of the European Union, who said he hoped the new cabinet would enact the sweeping reforms needed to rid the Palestinian Authority of corruption and mismanagement.
Envoys from the EU, the U.S., Russia and the United Nations were slated to meet late this week to discuss new Middle East peace efforts. But even as they met, Lebanon prepared to begin diverting water from the Wazzani River that flows into Israel _ a move Sharon had warned would be challenged with force by Israel. On the eve of ceremonies inaugurating the water diversion project, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah warned that his forces would respond “within minutes” to any Israeli military move. He said his gunmen already had their targets selected inside Israel and that “all we need is one telephone call” to act.
Steinberg said that although the water diversion is serious, Sharon has indicated that he is willing to allow diplomatic efforts to change Lebanon’s mind.
“The ceremony is not important,” he said. “What is important is the amount of water that is pumped, and Sharon has time on that. If in a couple of months a significant amount of water is pumped [from the river], there is going to be military action. Sharon is not going to wait beyond February or March, and during the winter when the rains come water is less critical.”